Some of the most authentic and delicious wines are born from the least expected places and most unlikely collaborations. In the rugged mountains of Mexico’s Baja California Norte, Bichi has put together one of the most exciting projects in the world of wine.
Noel Téllez and the Téllez family founded Bichi in 2014. The family is originally from Sonora, and the name of the winery, Bichi, means ‘naked’ in the Sonoran Yaqui language. From 2014 to 2017, Noel worked closely with his family and with Louis-Antoine Luyt (the French winemaker who made his name working with old vine País in Chile) to find and make wine from the area’s ancient vineyards of diverse varieties; today Noel collaborates with partner Maryam Hariri of California and Yann Rohel of Beaujolais. Their focus is on organic and dry-farmed heirloom vineyards that express the long and complex viticultural history of Baja California.
The history of grape cultivation in the area began with the arrival of Vitis vinifera in Mexico in the 1500s: Spanish colonialism brought Catholicism, and with it came the Missions and the vines. Vitis Vinifera thrived in the area, and the region was so well-suited to viticulture that the Spanish Crown imposed strict controls on wine commerce in fear of New World wine eating into the market for the produce of the home country. Viticulture, of course, continued: Catholic missions, settlers, and indigenous communities continued growing grapes and making wine throughout Baja California. The area’s main grape was the ancient Misión – known also as Chile’s País, Argentina’s Criollo, California’s Mission and the Listán Prieto of the Canary Islands (the variety’s oldest known location was in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain).
By Mexican independence in 1821, grape farming and wine production was quite widespread and secure in the area, and today most of Mexico’s wine is produced in Baja California in a stretch that reaches east from the coastal Valle de Guadalupe to arid Tecate. During American Prohibition, Mexican winemakers and (and some enterprising American exiles) produced illicit wine and brandy from these vines for the Los Angeles market, and vines dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century are not uncommon. As in Southern California, the dry climate and sandy soils are well suited to low-intervention farming for Vitis vinifera, as the risks of phylloxera and mildew are mostly absent – but bracingly hot days and rainless nights tend to result in low yields.
While the Valle de Guadalupe has overall adopted a more technological and modern approach, Bichi adheres to traditional methods and minimal intervention. Bichi farms 10 hectares of their own Tecate vineyards biodynamically and collaborates with a growing network of small farmers who work vineyards organically in Tecate and around San Antonio de las Minas in the coastal Valle de Guadalupe. Their work with Misión is notable, but other varieties include Rosa del Peru, Tempranillo, Palomino, Chenin Blanc, and harder-to-identify rarities - as in the No Sapiens vineyard, which is planted to a still-unidentified grape that resembles Italian Dolcetto. In the winery, grapes are destemmed by hand and gently trodden by foot, and fermentations are carried out by wild yeast in locally made concrete amphorae and flex tanks. The wines are raised in a mix of neutral barrels and steel vats, with only a minuscule 10 ppm of sulfur added at bottling when necessary.
It’s hard to talk about Bichi without mentioning the labels, which feature Mexican luchadores and express Noel’s sense of humor. Inside the bottles are incredibly vibrant and transparent wines that evoke the nearby Pacific Ocean, the granite soils, and rugged mountain vineyards of their region. Through the persistent work of the family and their farmers and collaborators, lively Baja wine is officially on the map.
Pet Mex comes from a single, dry-farmed, and own-rooted 69-year-old vineyard comprised of a mysterious grape variety that remains unidentified. The vines are planted close to the Pacific Ocean at 1,066 ft above sea level on sandy loam and granite soils in the area of San Antonio de las Minas in Ensenada, Baja. The grapes are hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and pressed after a few hours on the skins. Fermentation is with wild yeasts, and the wine is bottled before fermentation is finished, where the wine went through secondary fermentation, a la metodo ancestral. No filtration or added SO2. Rosa is 100% Garnacha from an 80-year-old vineyard in the Valle de Guadalupe on clay soils at 300m. The grapes were pressed whole cluster immediately after harvest, and fermented in stainless steel tank. No fining, filtration or added SO2.
Listan is produced from 100-year-old pie franco Misión (Listan Prieto) vines grown at 2,400 ft elevation on sandy loam and granite soils in the mountains of Tecate, Mexico, right on the California border. Because the grapes are dry-farmed, yields are very low here. The grapes are de-stemmed and fermented without temperature control in 450 liter concrete tinajas. After fermentation, ½ of the cuvee goes to stainless steel vats, and the other goes to half to used barrels for 3 months. The wine is bottled without fining or filtration and just 10 ppm of added sulfur.
La Santa comes from centenarian, own-rooted Rosa del Peru (Moscatel Negro) vines grown at 2,400 ft elevation on sandy loam and granite soils in Tecate. The grapes were hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and fermented without temperature control in 450 liter concrete tinajas with 45 days of maceration. The wine was then raised for 3 months in ½ stainless steel vats and ½ older barrels.
No Sapiens comes from a single, dry-farmed, 69-year-old vineyard comprised ofa mysterious grape variety that remains unidentified. The farmer says it could be Dolcetto, Luyt thinks maybe Cariñena due to it's sharp acidity, no one is quite sure and perhaps it doesn't really matter as this wine shows it's place beautifully. The head-pruned, own-rooted vines are planted close to the Pacific Ocean at 1,066 ft above sea level on sandy loam and granite soils in the area of San Antonio de las Minas in Ensenada, Baja California. The grapes were harvested by hand towards the end of August, de-stemmed, and then fermented in concrete tinajas. The wine was raised for 3 months in equal parts steel vat and older oak and bottled without fining or filtration and only 10 ppm’s of added SO2.
Mistico is comprised of a field blend of grapes from the various parcels and terruños that Bichi works with in both Tecate and Valle de Guadalupe. The wine was vinified the same way as the other red wines, except for 1 tinaja of Tempranillo seeing some carbonic maceration.
Flama Roja comes from the Téllez family’s home vineyard in Tecate. A blend of young Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon vines which they planted themselves in 2004 and farmed biodynamically just like their vegetable and herb gardens. The grapes were harvested by hand, de-stemmed and co-fermented in locally made concrete tinajas with 30 days of maceration, raised in a mix of steel tank and used French barrels over winter, and bottled without fining or filtration and only 10ppm of added SO2.
Kid Pinot is a young-vine, biodynamically farmed Pinot Noir from a 2 hectare vineyard in the Tecate area in Baja California. The soil here is sandy loam over granite, and the elevation is 2,300 feet. The wine was aged for a short time in barrel, before being moved to stainless steel tanks. Minimal added SO2.
Bichi Blanco is 100% Chenin blanc that was completely overgrown and wild (never used for wine) until Noel Telléz came across the vineyard. The vines are planted on sandy loam and granite soils at 2,000 feet. Fermented on the skins for about a month in tinaja before aging in stainless steel. Minimal added SO2.
La Gorda Yori was initially made from Moscatel (thus the name, which means “fat and wide” due to the grape’s size), but as of 2019 it now comes from mostly a dry-farmed parcel of Chenin Blanc planted in the 1980’s on granitic soils in Tecate, which was abandoned a few years after planting and recently revived by Noel and his team, and bits of Sauvignon Blanc and Moscatel, which were blended in to balance the ripeness of the Chenin. The grapes are hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and fermented with wild yeasts in concrete tinajas (amphoras), with 3 months of skin contact before pressing. The wine is raised over the winter and bottled without fining, filtration or added SO2 (starting in 2019).